The Machine and the Discovery of the Society

From Karl Polanyi
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[1] Society's invisible tissue did not truly come to light before it had been dyed through contact with machinery. Technology thus partly created, partly revealed the existence of an interpersonal structure around us that had a consistence of its own -- not any more a mere aggregate of persons, nor even a Hobbesian Leviathan built of human magots but a reality, not in its changing forms but in its abiding existence as unshakeable as death.

The dislocation of peasant life in the English countryside caused by the enclosure of the commons had given early evidence that “improvement” would interfere with people's “habitation”. The machine put teeth into that process. Improved pumps sent little children into the coal pits. The growth of mushrooms towns came down as a blight on the village and turned the very subsidies to a miserable living wage into a bane. Even Poor Law Reform was preferable to such a living death, and began to raise real wages at the price of moral torture administered with scientific cruelty. Luddism had proved an antidote to the mechanical inventions at the price of violence – and inevitable ultimate defeat. The building industry fired speculation produced a necropolis of slums. Inadequate wages led to gin ally, prostitution and a steep rise in infant morality, consumption and crime. Eventually an enormous increase in utilitarian goods began to bridge the economic chasm created between the classes.

[2] In the meantime, from entirely unexpected quarters a new peril arose from the advance of the centralization of mechanical power. […]

Each effect of the novel mechanism had thrown into profile some new feature of that uncovered entity, society. The traditional Christianity of the Eighteenth Century kindled an evangelical fervor in the common people which exalted under the sign of the cross the sufferings inflicted on hem by mine and mille. John Wesley's faith, Hannah Moore's gift for public relations were called on the scene to exercise the demons of the pithead. The apologetics of the Church charged the individual himself with the guilt that accounted for his sufferings. His sinfulness was located by Malthus in his animal proclivity for procreation, that organic source of the reality of society as manifested in the iron laws that must breed war, vice, pestilence and crime. Ricardo recognized in [3] this coarse grain of creation the sufficient cause for law wages. The crushing moral burden with which evangelical Christianity had loaded the poor man was seen by Ricardo better fitted … Luddites … Owen himself invented a series of practices and devices … Fourier believed the machine …

The new interest focussed directly on society and the leeway it allowed to the individual as a member of it. The pessimists argued figures and facts, pointing to the precision with which arithmetical series fell short of geometrical ones and the laws of marginal utility would cut down all workers' wages to the rational minimum; optimists [4] claimed to discover hitherto overlooked harmonies of interest in men's gifts and the propensities of age groups. Saint-Simon launched out on the reform of Christianity postulated by Owen's design of “separating man” from …

Solutions were sought in every direction. The fantastic pessimism of Malthus was grounded on man's animal nature; the no less fantastic optimism of the Utopians set its hopes on his spiritual endowment. Owen alone transcended their wishful feelings with the forebodings of an underlying reality; the knowledge of which was still to come. His greatness of mind proceeded to advise practical improvements as the passport to sociology. Comte's scientific intellect ignored these philantropist's injunctions and with the formal founding of the discipline of sociology himself responsible for a premature claim to knowledge. The spectre of hierarchy, totalitarianism and dogmatism was thus for the first time invoked as the adequate reaction to the elements of any human society. Quetelet's application of the law of great numbers induced a similar misunderstandings of the nature of social laws. An immature determinism stood guard at the gates of moral statistics, in which the reality of society had announced its entrance in the guise of a mathematical precision. With Herbert Spencer sociology became a branch of sciences of the organic development. In Hegel's and Marx's its ideal and material aspects vied in the explanation of history: Hegel elevated society to its hero in the form of idea, while Marx in a fundamental truism reduced history to a function of the [5] instruments of production that were actually responsible for the manifest emergence of society in modern times. Society's ideal content was declared to assert itself by rebelling against the limitations under which the private ownership of the means of production placed the creative power of the new technology. The socialist conception was born with its enthusiastic acceptance of the machine in the name of progress. The Hegelian idealism inherent in Marxism released the nuclear explosion of a concept of progress which did not cease to revolve around freedom for all its mobilizing of the material equipment of society in the service of progress. For technology had not been the prime mover in the appearance of society, but it also represented that part in its anatomy which was truly characteristic.

Text Informations

Original Text: “The Machine and the Discovery of the Society”, 24 April 1957
KPA: 37/06
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FR « La machine et la découverte de la société »